Kendra McKinley is a vocal powerhouse always ready to evolve. The San Francisco singer-songwriter’s sophomore release, Treat, is filled with crisp production and her own styling of blues-influenced honey-grit. Not only did she recently drop a new album, but she’s also been recording and performing with touted Oakland indie band Trails & Ways.
Highly articulate and composed, McKinley is sitting across from me at Mission restaurant We Be Sushi. Waitresses occasionally interrupt her answers with miso soup and green tea, but she has the ability to immediately pick up where she left off with zero sign of fluster.
McKinley was asked to be a studio musician on Trails & Ways’ upcoming sophomore album, as well as occasionally play shows with the band. This is something to shout about for an emerging solo musician since T&W notably released their debut album on Barsuk Records, a label with a roster that includes Death Cab For Cutie and Ra Ra Riot.
She crossed paths with the band when they were both on the same bill at a gig in Mill Valley. Shortly thereafter, Trails & Ways drummer Ian Quirk asked McKinley if she’d like to play bass on the album they were preparing to record. “I said I’ve never played bass before, but I can write melodies and if you don’t mind me using a pick when I play the bass then maybe this can work. We had a trial session where they sent me demos and I showed up with some ideas and they liked [them], so I ended up being a bass player on the entire album, all but two tracks,” McKinley explains. “I’m really happy with how it turned out, and they are as well. Props to them for contributing to personal growth.”
But it’s her newest album Treat, released on June 14th, where McKinley holds the creative reins. With intuition and a lot more performative experience as her guide, she moved out of her comfort zone and allowed the recording process to feel surprising. The single “Maya May,” which was originally a quieter jazz track, now features a synthesizer akin to sounds from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. She explains that if someone had told her, “‘In a couple of years you’re going to play an electric guitar and there will be Death Row [Records] inspired production…’ It would have drop kicked my brain.”
“That song in particular for me was indicative of a personal change, a change in my creative approach, a deeper interest in newer genres because similarly when I created (debut album) Chestnut Street, I just wanted to be Joni Mitchell, like early Joni Mitchell. I don’t feel that way anymore,” she adds.
Though Treat was recorded with a full backing band and the plan is to primarily tour with one, keeping the act’s name eponymous is handy. “I definitely would say that the band will forever be a rotating cast, because the music I’ve written the last couple of years and the types of performances I’ve been invited to have fluctuated quite a bit,” McKinley says.
The current backing band includes her brother and producer of Treat, AJ McKinley of the band Battlehooch, as well as Andy Freeman, a Los Angeles-based engineer who has worked with Manchester Orchestra and Eisley. She connected with Freeman in the most San Francisco way possible, through what McKinley refers to as “pure magic” — a Lyft driver.
“I moved in 2014 to try on the San Francisco music scene. The third day of living in the city I ran into a friend at a party who I knew from a summer art program in 2005. I played my music for this friend, gave him Chestnut Street, and the next day he was Andy’s Lyft driver. It was this incredible instance of serendipity. Andy is the type of person who actually listens when he hears a recommendation, which is something to be celebrated in the first place. And then Andy contacted me and said, ‘I want to work with you.’”
Only in San Francisco.
McKinley’s role in Trails and Ways was a result of guitarist Hannah van Loon and bassist Emma Oppen’s splitting from the band. McKinley alludes to the pair’s outside interests of traveling, woodworking, and adds that “beyond that they were ready for something outside the full-time tour schedule.” It seems like everyone left things off amicably though. Van Loon, always a dexterous guitarist, has a new project called Tanukichan and McKinley has done her best to step in: “With these live shows I definitely felt like I had huge shoes to fill with her lead playing.”
But McKinley’s role with Trails can still seem nebulous. At some point she says she’s “quote unquote in the band” and Trails and Ways’ Facebook page has her listed as bass and lead guitar, but you get the feeling that her main focus, especially with the release of Treat, is on her own band.
“Unfortunately because I’m also starting to tour more regularly I can’t commit to more projects and I would hate to be in a situation where either project is compromised because you can’t be in two places at once.”
McKinley is about to hit the road on a West Coast mini-tour to promote Treat and the album is available on all major streaming platforms. And even though she’s the star of the show, she knows that she didn’t get here alone.
“Fortunately I got to work with a team [on Treat]who was very encouraging and challenging… I love touring and I want to tour as much as possible with my own band.”